Silvio Berlusconi has survived ejection and scandal to return to the centre of Italian politics. But it is his opponents more than the man himself who carry the blame for his continuing influence, says Geoff Andrews.
This was supposed to be Italy’s new beginning. Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation from the post of prime minister in November 2011 - the fourth such departure of his dizzying career - was the definitive sign that the country was about to take a different path. The scenes of jubilation outside the Quirinale Palace as the beleaguered premier notified President Napolitano - where some of Berlusconi's opponents even sang the hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah - seemed to confirm the sense of an historic shift.
The appointment of the reform-minded technocrat Mario Monti as his successor, talk among Italy’s scattered generation of trentenni (thirty-somethings) of a return home to help renew the country, and then Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and banning from public office in October 2012 - all contributed to the narrative of an Italy that was at last forging ahead and leaving behind the figure who had dominated its public life for the last two decades.
As the general election of 24-25 February 2013 approaches, however, the question of what has really changed in Italy is inescapable. True, some things are different. The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has a new leader, the amiable (if "old school") Pierluigi Bersani, who trounced his younger ("Blairite") opponent Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, in primary elections praised for involving the wider participation of the electorate. There is a new influx of PD women candidates, in a political system renowned for its low percentage of female MPs. And Monti himself has entered the political arena, attempting to build a centrist coalition for change under the banner "With Monti For Italy".
But other elements suggest less of a fresh start. Monti's main partners - Future and Freedom, led by post-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, and Pierferdinando Casini’s Union of Christian Democrats - are former coalition allies of Berlusconi. Monti's year in office, which officially ended after parliament approved Italy's 2013 budget on 21 December (and Berlusconi’s party withdrew support for his government), may have been popular amongst Italy’s European partners, but its limited reforms of pensions, taxes and public services failed to win a strong domestic consensus. Most were seen as straightforward austerity measures, and many Italians regarded him as overly cautious and afraid of upsetting party interests. On the wider issues of generating growth and stimulating competition, the main long-term weakness of Italy’s economy, Monti failed.
So if Monti's reputation among the European allies (and senior figures in Italy) is high, the harsh effects of his policies meant he couldn't win over Italy's new generation. This left him vulnerable to populism of both left and right. Beppe Grillo’s "Five Star Movement" has continued to grow - much to the disquiet of the political class - and could yet have an impact on the election result. Monti’s own support lags behind Grillo’s, and any hope of cementing a progressive centre-left alternative with Bersani has been eclipsed by wrangling and counter accusation. Monti’s likely condition for a post-election agreement seems to rest on Bersani breaking with Nichi Vendola’s Left & Ecology movement; an unlikely scenario given any possible electoral majority needs the latter's support.
The success of failure
But it is the shadow of Silvio Berlusconi, and the centre-left’s fear and timidity in addressing his electoral threat, that are beginning to define this campaign. Berlusconi had announced the end of his political career, and his ability once more to challenge for power is partly owed to the vagaries of a justice system where the first conviction in a case is not definitive and subject to further processes and appeals. The very fact that he is in the race will astonish many observers elsewhere in western Europe, where similar legal findings would have had serious political consequences for someone in Berlusconi's position. But in two ways, the centre-left that must take a major share of the responsibility for Berlusconi's revival.
First, in a live television debate on the independent La 7 channel, Berlusconi got the better of the host Michele Santoro, a long-standing adversary (Santoro had worked for RAI, the state broadcaster, and the former prime minister was widely alleged to have forced his removal). In the broadcast, Santoro’s guest interviewers - including the leading Berlusconi critic Marco Travaglio - were allowed to air their own agendas rather than interrogating Berlusconi on his own legal troubles and poor economic record in office. In Travaglio’s case this meant an interminable monologue which presented no difficulty for Berlusconi (whose vintage performance included demonstratively wiping Travaglio’s seat). In a single programme on his favoured medium, he managed to revive his fortunes at the invitation of his lamentable opponents.
There are many excellent journalists in Italy, but the inability to employ rigorous interviewing that can hold those in power to account has often been apparent. This reflects a wider failure of the free media in Italy, namely to practise its wider constitutional role of facilitating information and transparency. In this particular case, Berlusconi had apparently been able to set down his own rules beforehand on what could or could not be covered in the "interview".
Second, the decision by the centre-left president of Rome's newest art museum, Giovanna Melandri, to suspend the screening of a documentary film in Rome until after the election - on the grounds that it was "over-political" - is another example of the mixture of extraordinary timidity and party-based machinations that operates in Italy's public life. The film - Girlfriend in a Coma, made by Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott (and based on the former Economist editor’s book Bill Emmott, Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer its Demons to Face the Future [Yale University Press, 2012]) - is intended to open up a debate about Italy, in particular the kind of economic and political reforms necessary for its revival. That it should be banned by opponents of Berlusconi, who in office owned or controlled up to 90% of Italian TV, is remarkable enough. Even more, because the film, which includes interviews with a range of critics, including Roberto Saviano, Nanni Moretti and leading industrialists, is a serious contribution to national debate and in no way party-political. In part it is a call to recognise that Italy’s hope rests increasingly on a growing diaspora, waiting for the chance to bring their talents and innovations home.
It is this hope that has been extinguished, seemingly with the active help of the centre-left, at least from Italy’s immediate future. Berlusconi may be unlikely to win an overall victory in the election, though he has closed the gap as the campaign has progressed and could still affect the outcome. Moreover, in the complex electoral system which he himself created, it is quite possible that the centre-left will fail to get a majority in the senate, the upper house. And then? The shadow of Berlusconi will ensure that Italy’s problems continue.